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From the archives: How Cape Breton nurtured Rita MacNeil's music – and turned her into a star

This photo of singer Rita MacNeil was taken Nov. 14, 1997.

Dan Callis/The Globe and Mail

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on November 5, 1998.

At first glance, it would be difficult to imagine anyone less naturally suited to stardom than Rita MacNeil .

First of all, with her short, round body, she's hardly glamorous. Indeed, she often makes gently self-deprecating jokes about her physique during concerts.

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Second, she's from Cape Breton, a part of the country that, in spite of the talent it has produced - Matt Minglewood, John Allan Cameron and, of course, MacNeil herself - is something of a mystery to the folks at the record companies in Toronto.

And finally, she is almost painfully shy. As she sits in a chair in the corner of her hotel room, MacNeil looks down as she answers an interviewer's questions in a voice that seems about to slip into a whisper. Asked whether she has any vocal training, she admits that she was once sent for lessons. "But I was too shy. The teacher ended up doing all the singing."

And yet, at 44, Rita MacNeil is a star. Her last two albums, 1987's Flying On Your Own and this year's release, Reason to Believe, have both been certified platinum in Canada in recognition of sales of more than 100,000 copies. She won the Juno award for most promising female vocalist in 1987, an ironic honor for someone who has been singing for more than 17 years. A new Christmas album earned her a gold record - for sales of more than 50,000 - within weeks of being released. Anne Murray has covered her hit, Flying On Your Own. And tonight she will perform before a sold-out house at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

MacNeil has done it with a crystal clear voice that is sweetened by a light Celtic lilt, and with songs that speak eloquently of places and people, of dreams and the simple pleasures of friendship. And she's done it with persistence and courage. Only three years ago, her talent was a well-kept secret to most of the country, although she had a strong following in the Maritimes and in the women's music community. Since the release of Flying On Your Own, however, her stock has skyrocketed.

"It's wonderful," she says of her current tour, which will take her and her band - keyboardist Ralph Dillon, bassist Al Bennet, guitar Clarence Deveau, drummer Dave Burton and backup singer Lisa McDouggal - across the country. "Because of my good fortune, we're a lot more comfortable and we're going to places where I've never performed before."

Born and raised in Cape Breton, MacNeil took up performing after she moved to Toronto in 1971. She lasted ten years in the city - "It was ten years of thinking and learning, hard times and good times," she says in retrospect - before returning to Big Pond in 1981 to try to make a career of singing. A small village in Cape Breton - "I've been telling everyone that the population is 175; it's actually 250; we'd better get that straight" - Big Pond offered the sense of community and closeness that still resonates through MacNeil's songs.

"I'm happy living there," she says, "I'm close to my family and close to my roots, which is very important to me. And I have found that I can live there and still pursue my career."

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And Big Pond is happy to have her living there. When she won the Juno award last year, the entire village turned out to greet her at the airport in Sydney.

"There was a great deal of excitement. They didn't care what award it was," she says, smiling. "There were banners and roses and when I got home, there was an enormous bouquet of flowers. It's like every little thing that has happened to me is happening to them."

And while she says Big Pond will always be home, MacNeil retains a place in her heart for Toronto. When she learned that her concert last year at Convocation Hall had sold out in advance, she was moved to write a song, The Music's Going 'Round Again, that she included on her new record.

"I wrote the song on the day of the show," she says. "I was so pleased that the show had sold out and I wanted to say something special to the audience. I wanted to have a gift to give them, to show them how special it was. So I wrote a song about looking out from the 18th floor, remembering way back how it was and saying," she quotes from the song's lyrics: "I tried to hold you, you weren't ready then, and now I've come back as a friend and still the music's going round again."

If her success over the past few years inspired MacNeil then, she seems almost humbled by how it has developed since. She followed up a performance at Expo 85 in Japan with appearances at Expo 86 in Vancouver and Expo 87 in Australia, as well as dates in England, Scotland and Sweden. Now, she speaks cautiously of trying, like most other Canadian musicians, to make inroads in the United States.

"There's been some talk of going into the States. I'd love to perform to new audiences, But it's taken me almost 20 years to get across this country and in light of that, if I never went anywhere again, I can look back on that with satisfaction."

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Certainly, MacNeil seems delighted enough at her current success. At the mention of the show at Roy Thomson Hall - her record company expects another full house when she returns there Nov. 27 - she practically glows.

"I'm so happy we're playing there," MacNeil says. "From the Horseshoe Tavern to Roy Thomson Hall, who would have thought it? It's very exciting. Of course, playing the Horseshoe was wonderful too. I can say that in my entire career I've never played any bad places. Because wherever I was, there were always good people there."

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